The Transformers movies are rated PG-13, and I think Michael Bay still thinks he’s making them for teenage boys — probably even younger. But after seeing the fifth installment, The Last Knight, I came to a conclusion that started percolating while watching 2014’s Age of Extinction (the one that introduced Mark Wahlberg and dinosaurs to the mix): I think they should be a controlled substance comparable to alcohol, available to consume and ruin your life, ideally after your brain has finished developing. After that point, ruin away.
I say that with very little irony. The Transformers movies are a favorite object of critical scorn, and narratively, The Last Knight remains barely coherent. But it’s more fun than Age of Extinction, though both movies are so drunk on money and effects they accidentally go weird. Knight opens with a Dark Ages battle — flaming catapult bombs flying at you in 3-D over the peaks of the Paramount logo — and ends with a woman in the desert whose face turns purple as robes billow around her. In the middle, an ancient amulet grows spider legs and latches itself onto Wahlberg’s arm, and Stanley Tucci plays a wizard. (I want to know everything about Tucci’s relationship with Bay, which must be strong enough that the director would bring the actor back to play two different characters in the same franchise.) It would be possible to appreciate the Transformers films as the most expensive and successful head films ever made, if it wasn’t for the business in between their impossibly elaborate effects sequences.
Unfortunately, Bay’s weird predilection for bad racial stereotypes and his general disdain for women keeps harshing the mellow (mellow? Sure, mellow). And then there’s the plot, which involves no less than five principal human characters and an ancient order, led by Anthony Hopkins, which is in charge of keeping the secret history of the Transformers a … secret. If you thought giant robot dinosaurs was a little much, you haven’t seen secret Nazi-killing World War II Autobots, or the spit-take inducing revelation that Transformers might have had a hand helping Harriet Tubman with the Underground Railroad. This would at least be ludicrously ballsy delivered straight, but the script keeps throwing in gags and bits to reassure you that it’s in on the joke, which is not very convincing given that anyone in on the joke would not have made this film in the first place.
But if you’re looking for an excoriation of the latest whirring colossus Bay has thrust upon us, I don’t have one. I can barely summon a feeling about The Last Knight; if anything, I feel slightly worried about how little I hated it. For bloated summer tentpoles, the Transformers films continue to have more visual and sonic imagination than most superhero films, even if the result isn’t anything I’d call beautiful. But I suspect, grudgingly, it’s art. The third act involves the Transformers’ disintegrating home planet of Cybertron (yup) colliding with Earth; honeycomb-like pieces of it drag across the surface of the planet from sinewy tethers, like a fleet of giant jellyfish giving us a headbutt. Early in the film, Bumblebee, an Autobot “character” I will never have any interest or investment in (he’s the yellow one who used to be Megan Fox’s car), appears in the middle of the fight scene by launching himself in pieces into the middle of a melee, then proceeds to reassemble himself, limb by limb, while knocking out baddies and dodging gunfire as the camera does a 360 around him. I think I actually gasped.